At nearly two decades old, Albert Brooks’s wonderful film, “Mother,” offers many nostalgic staples of ‘90s Americana: cutting-edge “picture phones,” gasoline priced at $1.21 per gallon and smart comedy for adults. As he previously displayed in films such as “Modern Romance,” “Lost in America” and “Defending Your Life,” Brooks is a master of nuance. His dialogue is funny not just in how it is written, but how it is delivered. The filmmaker has a keen ear for how passive aggression, sarcasm and pent-up angst can ripple through seemingly benign conversations, which makes him an ideal artist to explore the complicated relationship between a mother and her adult son. Apart from being an uproariously funny comedy, “Mother” is one of the most perceptive films I’ve seen about the fractured bond between parents and children, and the repercussions it can have on their lives.
Brooks plays John Henderson, a struggling writer of science-fiction novels. After two failed marriages, he decides to move back in with his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), much to the bewilderment and possible envy of his brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow), a successful family man harboring serious mommy issues. John believes that by examining his own troubled relationship with Beatrice, he might develop a better understanding of women—and himself. The brilliant chemistry between Brooks and Reynolds is apparent right off the bat in the film’s first great scene, where they converse over the phone.
Beatrice: “Ooo! I have a call waiting.” [presses button] “Hello?”
John: “It’s still me, mother.”
Beatrice: [presses button] “Hello?”
John: “Still me mother.”
Beatrice: [presses button] “Hi?”
John: “Why do you even pay for this feature?”
Beatrice knows the precise way to get under her son’s skin, lacing her tender advice with barbed critiques of his writing, nonexistent fashion sense, balding patch and refusal to eat meat. Best known for splashy musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Reynolds is a joy to behold in this role, bringing just the right level of restraint to each scene while creating a character who is endearing in her realness, even when she’s at her most exasperating. Here are just a sampling of her lines that drive John nuts…
“This is my son. The other one.”
“Buy yourself some new clothes. Because the last time I saw you, I just thought you could look better.”
“I love the book, but are you sure you want to bring back all those characters?”
“Maybe when you stopped eating meat, your writing became a little thinner.”
John’s responses to her are every bit as priceless. One of the best scenes centers on a trip to the supermarket, where Beatrice continues to circle the same open space in the parking lot until John grabs the wheel, explaining, “Someone had to stop us from going around.” Observing all the cheap food Beatrice buys, John encourages her to purchase his favored brand of organic peanut butter instead, pleading, “I want an experience where we throw away 91 cents together.” Back at home, Beatrice sections off his side of the fridge so he won’t accidentally eat any meat, leading John to reply, “It’s a good thing you know that about me. I accidentally eat things all day long.” As they finally settle down to dine, Beatrice’s homemaker instincts cause her to set out an absurdly extravagant amount of items from the kitchen, prompting John to finally exclaim, “Stop with the food—it’s like ‘Fantasia’!”
Food, of course, plays a key role in another of the film’s classic scenes, after John arrives at his mother’s home in Sausalito. She immediately offers to fix him a meal and, much to John’s revulsion, serves up a slew of snacks that appear to have been lying in the freezer since her son was a child. Even the soggy salad tests John’s gag reflex. “This lettuce is 100 years old,” he notes. “What, did you get this from the Smithsonian commissary?” Finally, she presents him with an obscurely named dessert (in the clip below). It does not go well.
Brooks cleverly establishes his character’s disconnect with women during a single scene that suggests how his previous relationships had faltered. Moving at an excruciatingly slow speed, the camera pans along a restaurant table as John makes painfully stilted stabs at small talk with his hopelessly adrift date, Linda (Lisa Kudrow).
John: “What authors do you like?”
Linda: “I like you.”
John: “You’ve read my work?”
Linda: “No, I mean, as a person.”
The awkward would-be conversation here is mirrored in the similarly squirm-inducing sequence where John takes Beatrice out for a fancy dinner.
Beatrice: “Do you know how the cane was invented?”
Beatrice: “Oh, I don’t know, dear. I just can’t imagine that was its original purpose.”
John ultimately discovers that his self-loathing stems from Beatrice’s inability to pursue her own dreams. In a way, she represents an entire generation of women who were assigned the duties of a housewife before they had a chance to mold their own identity. Beatrice has been conditioned to never put herself first, seeking the approval of others—even complete strangers—just as John and Jeff seek her approval. There’s a hilarious running gag involving Beatrice’s penchant for divulging her family’s personal issues in public, culminating in one of the film’s biggest laughs, as she accompanies John to a clothing store.
Clerk: “Yes, may I help you?”
John: “Yeah, I’d like to get some underwear.”
Clerk: “Ok.” [looks at Beatrice]
Beatrice: “That’s my son. I didn’t come here to pick out underwear for him. He’s just staying with me for a while.”
John: “Mother, I understand when you tell your friends, but this is a kid that we don’t have to tell this to. [to Clerk] What is your name?”
John: “Steve, other than selling us things, you don’t give a s—t about us, do you?”
Clerk: [pauses] “No, not really.”
John: [to Beatrice] “See?”
As for Jeff, he flips out after Beatrice turns down an invitation to spend the weekend with him and his family, opting instead to stay with John and continue the “experiment.” Jeff then shows up in her driveway and proceeds to pressure Beatrice into leaving with him, leading to this deeply satisfying scene…
“Mother” is, to my mind, a perfect movie. Sure, the score may be a little overdone at times and not every gag is a slam dunk. But the scenes between Brooks and Reynolds, which comprise the vast majority of the picture, are so achingly authentic that they render all minor quibbles irrelevant. I’ll never forget how my parents raved about the film after seeing it in the theater. I was 10 at the time, so it would be a few years until they would let me watch their VHS copy, fast-forwarding past the mildly suggestive scenes between Beatrice and her male “friend” (“We’re not intimate…we just have sex occasionally”).
It is one of the few films that has caused me to nearly hyperventilate with laughter—laughter that is not only pleasurable but cathartic. It’s audible delight expressed out of recognition when faced with the truth. I can’t thank Albert Brooks enough for making it and I can’t think of a better film to watch on Mother’s Day. In closing, here are two more of my favorite quotes from the film. Why two? Because I simply can’t pick just one.
Beatrice: “Honey, I love you.”
John: “I know you think you do.”
And of course…
Beatrice: “You must think of me as some sort of a moron.”
John: “No, no. Not a moron. Just someone who thinks I’m a moron.”
Beatrice: “Well, it takes one to know one, doesn’t it, dear?”
“Mother” is available for purchase and streaming on Amazon, and is sorely deserving of a Criterion release, particularly one with Sweet Tooth-inspired cover art.